Pathophobia: The Fear of Disease

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What is Pathophobia?

While this may appear to be a natural fear for many, pathophobia, or the fear of disease, is a highly debilitating disorder. For example, a patient with pathophobia may not be able to go into hospitals, doctors' offices or even pharmacies, making health care almost impossible.

In addition, pathophobia may be related to obsessive compulsive disorder. One famous example of pathophobia becoming full blown OCD is the story of multi-millionaire film producer and aviator Howard Hughes, whose entire life was almost destroyed by his pathological disorders. Obviously, it is very important to know the causes, symptoms and effective treatments for pathophobia…before it becomes something much more debilitating.

Causes of Pathophobia

The average age of the onset of specific phobias is between 15 and 20 years of age, and pathophobia is no exception to that statistic. According to researcher Lynn L. Hall, in her book Fighting Phobias: Things That Go Bump In The Night, “Many psychologists believe that the cause of most phobias is a mix of genetic predisposition and environmental causes”. Again, pathophobia is no exception.

Some environmental causes of pathophobia could be; death of a close family member, a traumatic personal experience with a disease or graphic descriptions of diseases that may be traumatic. All of these “triggers” may have occurred during childhood or adolescence.

Symptoms of Pathophobia

Although patients may know that their fears are irrational, they appear unable to control their symptoms. The symptoms of pathophobia according to the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) are:

  1. The persistent fear of disease that is intense, excessive and irrational.
  2. Exposure to the feared item or association (e.g. disease, germs or health care facilities) almost always leads to an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a panic attack.
  3. The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable.
  4. The phobic situation(s) is avoided or else is endured with intense anxiety or distress.
  5. The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress during the feared situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, work (or school) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.

Treatments for Pathophobia

Due to the debilitating effects and progression of pathophobia, patients who suffer from the fear of disease are generally strongly encouraged to seek professional treatment. The following treatments have been shown to be effective for almost all phobias, including pathophobia.

Hypnosis Therapy is exactly what it sounds like. According to the AllPsych Online Psychology Journal, while many patients may not be able to identify the root causes of their phobia, their subconscious mind is often able to help. Experienced hypnotherapists will use age regression to attempt to identify the original traumatic event associated with the patient’s phobia. Once the event is identified, the patient may be able to objectively view it and work to overcome their associations.

Systematic Desensitization, or exposure therapy, is a highly effective therapy that directly addresses the symptoms of pathophobia. Exposure therapy works by gradually exposing patients to the subject of their fears. For example, a patient starting exposure therapy would be asked to think and talk about diseases, then graduate to looking at images of germs or sick people. Moving on, the patient would then be exposed to a crowded public area, then finally a hospital waiting room. Ultimately, by gradually being exposed to their fear, the patient is able to overcome their negative feelings and regain control over their thoughts.

Anti-Anxiety Medication is another option sometimes used to control the symptoms of pathophobia. However, according to AllPsych Online again, medication has not been shown to be effective at treating the root causes of pathophobia. Thus, medication is not an effective long-term treatment for the phobia.

NB: The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.


1. Hall, Lynne L. Fighting Phobias: The Things That Go Bump in the Mind. FDA Consumer, Vol. 31, March 1997

2. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

3. AllPsych Online